Doubtful Willow Buds and thoughts on back story

If my husband weren't off on a musical tour of Japan, or if I had the necessary organizational and financial wherewith all to plan for evening childcare, I could head over to the Providence Athenaeum tonight, for a celebration of the 100th birthday of The Wind in the Willows, at which Mary Jane Begin will chat about her new book, Willow Buds, the Tale of Toad and Badger.

Here's the publisher's blurb:

Discover the world before The Wind in the Willows, the beloved classic by Kenneth Grahame--when the childhood adventures of best buds Ratty, Toady, Badger and Mole were just beginning! In this first tale, Archibald Toad the Third is used to having everything he wants to himself. So he's in for an unpleasant surprise when the new nanny brings her gentle son, Badger, to share in all that Toad Hall has to offer. Though Toady and Badger get off to a rocky start, they soon learn that having a true friend is worth a whole lot more than having all the toys in the world.

I haven't read the book, and I haven't even seen it, so I have no opinion as to its merits as an illustrated story. But I am doubtful.

My first doubt: I love The Wind in the Willows, in no small measure because of Ernest Shepard's illustrations. Ms. Begin, whose version of the Wind in the Willows came out in 2002, is a very talented artist, but why gild the lily?

My second doubt: Badger and Toad can't be kids together because they aren't the same age. Surely Badger is much older! And now I shall have to comb the book for textual support for my position....And Mole met everyone for the first time as a grown up, not as a child, which the blurb implies.

My third doubt (this one is weaker): Personality-wise, Badger and Toad are so different that it is hard to imagine them as childhood friends. But that's debatable, and possibly the book manages to make this convincing.

My fourth doubt: Badger's mother has supposedly been hired by Toad's family as a nanny. But Badger's family has its very large and comfortable ancestral set in the woods, and Badger seems prosperous and self-sufficient. I don't see why Mrs. Badger would have to go out to work.

My fifth, not really a doubt, but a feeling of unease: Badger has a mother ??!! I can only remember two female characters in W. in W. -- the jailer's daughter and the washerwoman. It is hard to imagine Badger in particular having much to do with a female character...

And finally, not a doubt at all but a strong feeling of unease: if a story is strong enough to be a good story, it does not need to be built on the scaffolding of a beloved childhood classic. I don't like, in general, spin-offs from the books I love, and I don't much care for fan fiction. And anyway, I have never felt that the back story of W. in W. was an aching gap. Maybe others have. But I prefer to have things get all misty around the edges of the known text, allowing every reader to imagine their own way (if they want to) from where the author left off (at least, when it's a book from my childhood that I love).

And now I am trying to thing of examples where other people coming in and writing back story was a good thing that resulted in books I like. With the possible exception of some sci. fi., I am not coming up with anything...

I am, however, coming up with good ideas for other books--I think someone has done the picture books of Black Beauty's childhood, but for older readers, how about the graphic novel about what really happened to Ginger after she and Black Beauty were parted...or perhaps picture books from the perspective of Heidi's goats (one could tie this in to a discussion of global warming and the vanishing alpine glaciers).


  1. Hi Charlotte,

    I was disappointed to read your post this morning, and truly wish that you could have come to the Providence Athenaeum last night, as many of your questions, I would happily have answered! I'll try to answer each bit now- and encourage you to take a look at my new book. As to Kenneth Grahame (spelled with an e), he didn't actually illustrate the story, he was the author, publishing the first edition in 1908 with a single illustration/decoration by Graham Robertson. The first fully illustrated version was published in 1913 by Paul Bransom and there have been 90 versions (and counting!) in the past 100 years, mine being but one of them. Ernest Shepard, created one of the most beloved and well known versions of the book- felt similarly as you do, maintaining that he would not have attempted to illustrate The Wind in the Willows, had others not already done so.

    As to the ages of the characters, one relative to the other, there is no clear indication that Badger, or any of the characters were older or younger- it's really a matter of interpretation. Surely Badger was more emotionally mature than Toad, but chronologically older- it's hard to say. The question of Mole meeting up with the characters in the first chapter- I'll explain in the third book- it's a a sticky wicket- but on re-reading, my sense was that Mole had some idea of where he was headed, perhaps to pick up the threads of a long lost friendship.

    As to Badger and Toad being different from one another- it's the heart of the first story! It is a tribute to siblings who often begrudgingly find a connection- despite their differences in personality (opposites attract in all realms, - and makes life, I think- most interesting!)

    Mrs. Badger as a nanny seemed appropriate to me, as Badger is a solitary figure, probably from a very small family, and perhaps one that was missing a parent (Mrs. Badger was a widower, a mirror of Kenneth Grhame's life- as his mother died when he was five years old). Badger's socio-economic position seems modest, by comparison to Toad, and could be supported by the idea of lesser means, and also by a very maternal, forward thinking mother.

    And to your final doubt....Don't we all have mothers??!! I'm a mother of an eleven year old and a thirteen year old, and could not imagine these dear fellows as completely motherless.

    The other concerns go to the central theme of artistic creativity and inspiration, and would be so much more enjoyable to discuss in person. I welcome you to attend one of my book signings, or the next redux of the slide talk on July 12th, at 4:30pm at the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport. If you check out my website www.maryjanebegin.com, you'll see a full list of events- including a workshop for children at the Providence Athenaeum tomorrow (Saturday) from 2-4pm. I'll talk about characters, and read the book, then we'll draw and work on books and ideas together.

    My Best,
    Mary Jane Begin

  2. Hi Mary Jane,

    I appreciate your thoughtful response to what was basically a series of my gut reactions. I wish I could have come to the Athenaeum, too--in person it is easier to express oneself exactly!

    And you are of course absolutely right that I meant to write Ernest Shepard. I had a brain lapse--I've gone back and fixed that. Although I know there have been many other illustrators, he was the artist in my childhood edition, so to me, he is The Illustrator...

    And of course Badger would have had a mother, but he is such the archaetype of "crusty old bachelor" in my mind that it's hard for me to imagine him any other way.

    I will definitely try to come to another of your events--after I've read your book!

    All the best,


  3. Of course Charlotte knows that we all have mothers, and that all animals do. Charlotte's point about mothers seeming out of place in the dated yet curiously appealing world of cozy masculinity that Grahame is portrays in Wind in the Willows is perfectly clear to me. I can just as easily imagine Badger having a mother as I can Sherlock Holmes having one -- that is to say, it's not easy!

    For what it's worth, even though Charlotte is expressing doubts, I am much more likely to pick up this book out of curiosity after reading this blog post than I was before.


Free Blog Counter

Button styles